Learning about the MultiversePosted: March 18, 2011
Another week, another lecture. I heard Brian Greene speak on Monday about recent developments in theoretical physics. He talked about multiverses—the possibility that because it’s probably possible to go on travelling forever (as opposed to hitting a wall or returning to the start) then all this space may be filled with infinitely many parallel universes, each of could differ from our universe, on everything from physical laws to what colour my eyes are. It’s an attractive idea for some mathematicians, apparently, because it would explain some of the strange numbers you get when making calculations about the universe’s growth.
I came away from the lecture recalling that I’d mulled over some of the same possibilities when I was younger. Since my maths hasn’t got much better since then, these thoughts aren’t much more advanced now. This recollection made me particularly interested to listen to Brian Greene speaking that same day on the Radio 4 programme Start the Week, where he appeared with his British counterpart, Brian Cox, and the science journalist/author Angela Saini. The conversation turned to science education, and the two Brians agreed that it’s important to enthuse children with big ideas about the universe (or multiverse) so that they want to acquire the knowledge and mental discipline to understand these problems more clearly. Without disparaging other subjects, all three agreed that science should be accepted as a part of British cultural identity, and that understanding how the scientific process works would help citizens to make better judgements about matters like climate change. Saini helpfully broadened the discussion by contrasting Britain with the widespread enthusiasm for science and technology among Indian students.
There are many similarities between the claims being made for science and humanities education as drivers for democratic responsibility here, but I was left thinking about an important difference. Talk of the multiverse and wonders of the solar system is intended to be (to quote the blurb about Brian Cox’s current TV series) ‘spellbinding’ and ‘breathtaking’. It’s intended to nurture the type of thinking that I recalled having when I was younger, which anyone who has looked up at the night sky and tried to make sense of it all has had. This fascination gives a taste of why learning times tables, equations and the scientific method is worthwhile. This training helps us to make sense of the world.
The humanities don’t work like this. My equivalent fascination for books impelled me to delve deeper, but there’s not the same barrier between wondering and understanding. I could become engrossed by Jane Austen’s Emma or James Joyce’s Ulysses, but it wouldn’t make sense to say that I’d have to go away and study for several years until I could ‘properly’ understand them. This is because I’m studying human culture, which was written to be read and, at some level, understood. At the point that I’m not reading but studying literature, I’m developing new skills and knowledge (as with the science lesson) that challenge what I already know. It helps me to read between the lines, open my mind to new possibilities, and work out how to talk about given aspects of culture more incisively (just as it’s possible to talk about the universe’s creation in more detail if you know the maths).
The difference here, as I see it, is that because the scientist is working with the natural world, you have to develop your own skills to the point that you can start matching nature’s complexity, and the sophistication with which we find out about the world. But culture only exists because we already know something about it, and so the project of studying literature is immediately to examine pre-existing ideas and refine our judgment, with the object of coming to terms with reality through the lens of human experience. So wonder can be a motivation for students of arts as well as science. For science, this means asking those big, unanswerable questions and then groping towards an answer. For the humanities, you take what you know and start asking more and more difficult questions about it.